The exhibition built around the life and nearly 50-year career of the 66-year old David Bowie is ambitious, and the result is a stunning interdisciplinary presentation – almost like a gesamtkunstwerk in it’s own right. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has been given full access to the David Bowie Archive to curate the first international retrospective exhibition of the extraordinary career of one of the most pioneering and influential performers of modern times. It turned out that Bowie is one of those people who have never thrown anything away. Even better, he believes in organizing everything he has never thrown away. The curators of the show at V&A, Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes, traveled to New York to explore the 75 000-piece collection that an archivist had spent several years organizing. The selection of more than 300 objects in the current exhibition explores the broad range of Bowie’s collaborations with artists and designers in the fields of fashion, sound, graphics, theatre, video, installation, painting, sculpture and film. On display is various Ziggy Stardust bodysuits; photography by Brian Duffy; album sleeve artwork by Guy Peellaert and Edward Bell; visual excerpts from films and live performances including The Man Who Fell to Earth; music videos such as Boys Keep Swinging and set designs. Alongside these pieces is more personal items exhibited, such as storyboards, handwritten set lists and lyrics as well as some of Bowie’s own sketches, musical scores and diary entries, which are revealing the evolution of his creative ideas. David Bowie’s music is in the air, throughout, by virtue of headsets worn by visitors that pick up the tracks in each section of the show. The exhibition is absorbing, unsettling, full of extraordinary details and really captures that sense of immersive experience that makes Bowie electric.
The title of the exhibition: David Bowie is is an unfinished sentence, which implicates that David Bowie is a mystery and an invention. An invention by himself – David Jones, as his given name was, and an invention of an early manager who renamned him. David Bowie is, so to speak, the artist of artists. No artist in the history of art has created and directed himself in so many different roles as Bowie. No one else has either lost control of so many of them. The character and the man slid in the 1970’s in and out of each other with such precision that the author was not able to determine where one began and the other ended. A multi-year and well-documented cocaine abuse facilitated hardly. Camille Paglia, who has contributed with an essay in the exhibition catalogue explains that ”David Bowie is a product of Surrealism, Dada and the Modernists arts. He is body-based, always completely in the role he is playing. His tremendous physical virtuosity, his understanding of costume and how it is an imaginative projection of your body, is part of the biggest thing about him: he is so deeply emotional and totally in the senses.”
But, how much of this exhibition is really fashion? David Bowie himself would probably say that none of it is. Bowie has always said he isn’t interested in fashion, only in wanting his music “to look how it sounds”. And yet, this show is full of clothes that have shaped fashion history, from the Starman leotards, still arresting after all these years, to the turquoise Life on Mars suit and tie – so theatrically slender that it had to be let out by two inches when Kate Moss wore it. Also highly visible is the Aladdin Sane lightning-flash makeup that has inspired a thousand magazine shoots and the sharp-shouldered suits of the Diamond Dogs tour in 1974, which were a formative influence on Hedi Slimane – current designer of Yves Saint Laurent. My absolute favourites though, are Alexander Mcqueen’s violently distressed union flag frockcoat (1997) and the metallic, striped Ziggy Stardust bodysuit designed by Kansai Yamamoto, who in 1971 was the first Japanese designer to show in London. What really strikes me in the exhibition is Bowie’s immense capacity of variation, particular when it comes to fashion – his embrace of the neccesity of constant change is important to recognize for the understanding of Bowie’s artistry.